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Public baths architect Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe) is amazed by what he sees as he travels back and forth through time in THERMAE ROMAE

THERMAE ROMAE (Hideki Takeuchi, 2012)
Japan Society
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
Sunday, July 14, 5:15
Series runs July 11-21

Adapted from Mari Yamazaki’s popular manga series, Thermae Romae is a bizarre, hysterical tale about the importance of public baths throughout history. In the year 128, architect Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe) has lost his mojo, losing his job to a youngster with more modern ideas and being hounded by his wife to have greater ambition. Down on his luck, he is contemplating his bleak future when he sees a crack at the bottom of a pool, which sucks him into a contemporary Japanese bath house where a bunch of old men are relaxing. The confused fish out of water is amazed by what he sees, from bottled drinks to a clothing basket, and upon magically returning to Rome, he adds these elements to a new bath design that is a huge hit. Soon, every time he goes into water in Rome, he ends up in Japan, bumping into the adorable Mami Yamakoshi (Aya Ueto) and bringing back more ideas, eventually designing bath houses for Emperor Hadrian (Masachika Ichimura), who believes the public bath is a key way to maintain a good relationship with the common people. But despite his success, Lucius can’t help feeling like a fraud, and things only get more complicated when he gets involved in the political machinations of Rome revolving around Hadrian’s successor, either the dedicated Antoninus (Kai Shishido) or self-obsessed womanizer Ceionius (Kazuki Kitamura). Abe is a riot as Lucius, displaying wonderful deadpan flare as he stands naked in front of men and women, refers to the modern-day folk as a flat-faced tribe, and gazes in wonder at a flush toilet. His trips from Rome to Japan evoke the tunnel in Being John Malkovich, complete with appropriately goofy special effects. Writer Shōgo Mutō and director Hideki Takeuchi keep things moving at a playful pace, celebrating social interaction as well as potential romance, complete with a fun Greek chorus of Japanese bath lovers. A sequel has just come out in Japan, but you can catch the first film on July 14 at 5:15 as part of the annual “Japan Cuts” series at Japan Society, which runs July 11-21 and includes such other works as Takashi Miike’s Lesson of the Evil, Yukihiro Toda’s There Is Light, Yuki Tanada’s The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky, Mika Ninagawa’s Helter Skelter, and Keishi Otomo’s Rurouni Kenshin, many of which are copresentations with the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Asian Film Festival.

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